The History of Sports Analysis: The Man Who Destroyed English Soccer

By Duncan Ritchie

18-June-2020 on News

12 minute read

When you think of playstyles in soccer, you automatically associate them with certain countries or clubs, right?

 

Check out these examples:

Total Soccer

 

Close your eyes and think of Total Soccer. When you hear that phrase, where does it transport you to? I’d wager it would be Holland. You’d be thinking of the men in orange, the eternal runners-up, the small nation whose technical genius brought them to three World Cup finals. At club level you might be thinking of Ajax and the name Cruyff would almost certainly be in there somewhere.

 

 

Johan Cruyff, one of the architects of Total Football

 

Tiki-Taka

 

What about Tiki-Taka? This time you’re in Spain, aren’t you? You’re watching the national team lift the World Cup, or one of their two Euros, with their very own and unique brand of Total Soccer. Or perhaps you are at the Nou Camp, watching Guardiola’s team lift the Champions League trophy for the second time.

 

 

Spain celebrate their Euro 2012 victory

 

Now, close your eyes and think of England…

 

The Long Ball

 

What do you see? Of course, the Premier League is one of the biggest, most exciting competitions in the world just now, but it hasn’t always been like that.

 

If you’re of a certain age, you’ve probably got the same picture as me. Gray skies and gray soccer. Boring matches, 0-0 draws, long balls up the field by the keeper to a big man in the 18-yard box trying, usually unsuccessfully, to get his head on the end of it and stick it in the back of the net.

 

 

In other words, we’re talking about the long ball game. Or Route One soccer, as it’s often known. The footballing art that takes the art out of soccer and bypasses the beautiful game in mid-field.

 

So, why are we talking about this?

 

Well, you see, it just so happens that the birth of Route One soccer coincides with the birth of soccer analysis as a science…and both can be traced back to one man.

 

The World’s First Soccer Analyst

 

Ladies and Gentlemen, put your hands together for Charles Reep, the man who ruined English soccer!

 

 

Thodor Charles Reep, 1904 - 2002

 

Ok, so perhaps I’m being a little hard here, he was, by all accounts, the first analyst in professional soccer and without him, it’s possible that I wouldn’t be here writing this and you wouldn’t be here reading this. He was also a war veteran who served in the RAF throughout World War II and deserves respect for that. But let’s take a closer look at the life and times of Thodor Charles Reep and check out exactly what his legacy is.

 

Reep was born on the 22nd of December, 1904 in Plymouth in the South West of England. At school, he showed an aptitude for numbers and, on leaving Plymouth High School in 1923, took up employment as a trainee accountant. It was here that he really developed the mathematical skill and attention to detail that would serve him so well for football analysis later in his life.

 

 

In 1928, soon after becoming a fully qualified accountant, he joined the Royal Air Force, where he would serve until retiring in 1955 with the rank of Wing Commander.

 

During the early part of his career, he was stationed close to London which allowed him to attend matches at Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal. He also played and organised football matches at his base and became interested in analysis of the game after attending a lecture by Charles Jones, the captain of Arsenal at the time, who spoke about the understanding that had developed between the wingers at Arsenal. This lit a spark in Reep, of insights into attacking soccer, that he would kindle over the next 17 years, some of which he spent stationed in Germany during World War II.

 

And that brings us to 1950.

 

The Birth of Soccer Analysis

 

It’s almost impossible to pinpoint the exact time and date a new activity is born. When was the first soccer match? Nobody can tell you definitively.

 

But, in the case of soccer analysis, we can confidently say, almost to the exact minute, where and when it all began…on the 18th of March, 1950 during a match between Swindon Town and Bristol Rovers at around 4PM.

 

 

In the second half of this match, Charles Reep whipped out his notebook and pencil and started recording, in real-time, the action he saw before him on the pitch. Using a mix of symbols and notes, he scribbled furiously and ended up with a record of play that was as complete as possible for one man. He was able to notate plays, pitch positions, passing sequences and outcomes. An amazing achievement for one person, and a system which Charles would go on to develop during the remainder of season.

 

The following season, ’50-’51, saw Reep’s work being put to practical use in the league for the first time, with second division side, Brentford. Near the bottom of the league with serious prospects of relegation, Charles was approached to work as advisor and used his analytical skills to advise them. His analysis had shown him that attacking football was the way forward and advised them to get the ball upfield quicker via the wingers. Brentford subsequently won the majority of their remaining matches and comfortably avoided relegation.

 

Over the next few seasons, Charles went on to work with Wolverhampton Wanderers and, after retiring from the RAF in ’55, with Sheffield Wednesday. His analysis helped inform strategy, increase the attacking play of both sides and improve their standings in the league.

 

 

Charles Reep worked with Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough

 

So, some story, eh? The man basically invented soccer analysis with a foundation of real-time notation and retrospective data extraction. What’s more, every team he worked with improved their game. You’d be forgiven for asking yourself where the title for this article comes from. Well, here comes the downside…

 

The Death of the Beautiful Game

 

During his time at Sheffield Wednesday, Reep had remarkable success in his first season and helped the team get promoted to Division One. During the subsequent two seasons, this success waned and, at the end of the third season, Reep left, leaving behind a fair amount of bad blood as he accused the players of not buying into his long ball attacking system.

 

And so, we come to the crux of this article.

 

In 1953, Reep published an article in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society where he assessed the distribution of passes in almost 600 games of soccer. He concluded that 99% of all plays consisted of less than six passes whilst 95% consisted of four passes or less.

 

In 1973, Reep analysed the match where England lost 3-1 to a West Germany side using a style of play close to Total Soccer, silky fluid passes and interchangeable positioning. Despite the German dominance of the game, Reep criticised, the “pointless sideways passing” and proclaimed that this style of play was not what the fans wanted to see. Goals were the only goal!

 

 

West Germany vs Holland at the 1974 World Cup. Charles Reep had nothing good to say about either team

 

In the same year, Reep also published League Championship Winning Soccer: The Anatomy of Soccer Under the Microscope, in which he noted:

 

  • It takes 10 shots to get 1 goal (on average)
  • 50% of goals are scored from 0 or 1 passes
  • 80% of goals are scored within 3 or less passes
  • Regaining possession within the shooting area is a vital source of goal-scoring opportunities
  • 50% of goals come from breakdowns in a team’s own half of the pitch

 

His conclusion from all this data? Well, in a nutshell, that the ball should be moved forward as quickly as possible in order to get to a scoring position much quicker. The obvious way to do this was for a goalkeeper or defender to boot the ball up the field, directly into the box and hope that a striker could get on the end of it.

 

And this led directly to Route One soccer, the style of play favoured by many English teams, both at club and international level, throughout the ‘70s and 80s.

 

 

A Perfect Example of Route One Soccer

 

Gone was the “beautiful game” in favor of long, deep passes and scoring opportunities. And this is how Thodor Charles Reep almost destroyed the English game. His theories bypassed midfield battles, fluid passing and playmakers in favor of a direct route to goal. I know what kind of game I’d rather watch.

 

Reep had many detractors. Those who spoke out against his method of analysis and claimed that an analysis of an English third division match in the pouring rain couldn’t compare to the international stage in a hot country. They also said that his conclusions weren’t watertight. They only took into account, for example, plays started from a dead ball situation like throw-ins and corners. There was no data accounting for the number of passes that took a team to this position in the first place.

 

But, at the same time, many followed his footballing philosophy and still do to this day. As well, as the English national side, at club level, teams such as Wimbledon FC and, more recently, Leicester City’s league winning side have been purveyors of Route One. Reep’s teachings have also taken root in Norway where playing the long ball is as natural as breathing. All over the soccer world you can see his teachings, especially in the last minute of overtime when you’re a goal down!

 

 

Leicester City lift the 2015-16 Premier League title

 

A True Innovator and a Pioneer

 

Charles Reep died in 2002 and remained an ardent soccer fan and obsessive documenter right up to the end. Take away all the controversy and there is one thing that we can say without any shadow of a doubt – he was a pioneer.

 

I wonder what Charles would have thought about the current climate in sports where analysts have access to powerful software packages such as Nacsport and reams of data available in an instant. Where every professional club has a video analysis department and it’s seen as the norm.

 

Personally, I like to think that he would’ve turned his back on all this new-fangled gear and reached for his trusty notebook and pen.

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